Early in the spring of last year Craig Lewis, a 55-year-old Texas native, found himself confronted with a life-or-death situation. After battling with a complicated heart condition leading to the build up of abnormal proteins in his heart, Lewis was told by doctors that he had just 12 to 24 hours to live before his heart would give way entirely. Where all other heart-supporting technologies proved to be insufficient, Lewis’ only chance of survival lied in removing the heart completely—and putting machinery in its place.
The device, called a “continuous flow” pump, works by using blades to supply a continuous flow of blood to the entire body. As a result, the patient has no heartbeat, and as Lewis’ doctors state, “by all criteria that we conventionally use to analyze patients,” he would be considered dead. Although able to walk, read, and otherwise completely functional, Lewis’ EKG is flat-line, and a stethoscope would reveal no heartbeat. Although tested extensively in cows, Lewis was the first human subject. While the device worked flawlessly, Lewis ultimately died 5 weeks after it was installed as his condition led to the corrosion of his kidneys and liver. A short video highlighting Lewis’ experience can be found below:
While Lewis’ doctors claim the device is the “waive of the future” his story left me with more concern than excitement. Lewis’ story represents the natural degradation of the body that occurs with aging, and science’s extreme intrusion into that process. While Lewis’ body was ready to give up, Lewis was ready to fight back, and with technology on his side, he won the battle. With the invention of this new device will individuals always have the option of “choosing” to live? When our organs, one by one start to erode, will technology advance to the point to which we can just replace them with shiny metal versions? It’s already been proven that modern advances in technology have significantly improved human life spans. It seems as though heart-replacement technology seeks to made life endless.
Craig Lewis’ story can furthermore be seen as indicative of America’s overall view of death as not a natural and inescapable ending, but a fearsome process that must be stopped at all costs. Americans seems to think that death is an injustice, a force to battle against. While it’s true that the death of an infant or child seems premature, at what point must we admit that individuals are ready to die? Millions of our ancestors have come and gone. The idea that future generations can control their life spans, and enhance them to an unnatural extent, seems not only frightening, but quite frankly a little absurd. Death is inevitable, and I believe it is the time to embrace it—not run from it though technological advances.
When Grandpa Bredo Morstol died in 1989, he began a journey far different from what many might consider a “normal” burial. Coming from a family captivated by the science of cryonics, the process of deep-freezing the bodies of those who have died with the hope that healing and resuscitation may be possible in the future, Grandpa Bredo’s children forwent a traditional funeral and instead packed their father’s body in dry ice. From there he was shipped across the pond from their home in Norway to a cryonics facility in California. Nearly four years later when the Morstol children decided they’d rather keep their father close to home, the whole family moved to a modest home in the small town of Nederland, Colorado – with Grandpa Bredo residing in an ice-packed shed in back. The Morstol family maintained the integrity of Grandpa Bredo’s body by hiring an “ice man,” a caretaker who refreshes the dry ice supply once a month to keep Grandpa safely frozen.
When the town of Nederland heard the news that a local family was keeping their Grandpa frozen in the backyard, intrigue led to family-operated tours, which in time escalated into a full-fledged winter celebration. Now officially known as “Frozen Dead Guy Days” this three-day festival has been referred to as Nederland’s own Mardi Gras. Nearing on its 14th year, this festival is based on death-themed activities, including but not limited to coffin races, parade of decorated hearses, frozen-turkey bowling, Grandpa-look-a-like costume contests, and more. This quirky festival is not just celebrated by the people from Nederland, but by those all over the world who fly in to enjoy the fun.
Underneath the clear oddities of this festival (i.e. frozen salmon tossing contest) lie deeper matters of interest. First are the implications of the family’s choice to freeze their father’s body. Although sources indicate that the family had a deep interest in cryonics, can this interest be interpreted as their way of dealing with grief? Instead of accepting that one day their father and eventually themselves will cease to exist, does a devotion to cryonics represent a refusal to accept the finality of death? Perhaps there is comfort in the idea that since the body is prepped to be revived, it is not truly gone.
A second oddity is the festival goers’ undeniable deviation from how many Americans “normally” respond to encountering a dead body. The dead are often associated with fear and sadness, and viewing the dead leaves us upset and troubled. In contrast, Grandpa’s dead body is not only a spectacle people long to view, but a spectacle that has inspired an entire festival of celebration and happiness. What is it about this dead body, specifically, that doesn’t ignite feeling of fear?
A final point of consideration that’s highlighted by this unconventional festival is the right of the dead. Grandpa Bredo’s body has now been preserved in dry ice for 25 years, and has been a public display for almost 20. While it has been advertised that his childrens’ motives for preserving the body were in line with their father’s reverence for cryonics, there is no way of truly knowing whether Grandpa would have liked his body to become a public spectacle. Would Grandpa be distraught with his body’s use as an entertainment and tourist attraction, or would he enjoy the attention? Since we’ll never truly know, Grandpa’s spot in the limelight will remain.
Have you ever had one of those days where you just can’t seem to get off the couch, and mindless channel surfing transforms from a merely a procrastination technique to the day’s activity? If so, you may be familiar with Spike TV’s 1000 Ways to Die, a series dedicated to retelling the real-life stories of those who have fallen victim to strange and unusual deaths. Far from an educational or austere program, the show is littered with dramatized and embellished reenactments of real life events. To say the show’s producers have used an artistic license is an understatement – each story is told by a sardonic narrator who uses dark humor to show his unsympathetic view of each victim. The victim is usually presented as an idiotic, deserving fool, for which death is a rightful result of their poor decisions. This is perhaps best illustrated by the cringe-worth puns that end each episode. After being described as a steroid-pumped, SUV-loving cyclist-hater, a man who gets hit by a semi-truck after driving two cyclists off the road is described as going “from road rage, to road kill.” To grasp this show’s mocking, unabashed humor, I believe this clip speaks for itself:
It’s obvious that 1000 Ways to Die is not the next critically acclaimed show that is promised to spellbind viewers from across the nation. But as somebody who has watched more episodes than I’m willing to admit, what makes this show so entertaining? And do we believe ethical to use other people’s misfortune as a source of entertainment? The former question has a slightly easier answer – there’s something Americans love about pranks, tricks, and those rare “oops” moments. Funny at the time, these moments become even funnier then captured on camera to enjoy again and again (consider the popularity of a recent YouTube video showing a woman accidentally lighting herself on fire while twerking)
Although these videos may make us cringe with the imagined pain of the victims, we find it ok to laugh, because we know they’re going to be ok. Maybe badly hurt, but alive. Laughing at their death would just be cruel.
With this in mind, why do we allow ourselves to laugh at the foolishness of people on 1000 Ways to Die? Is this ethical? I argue that the answer comes from the clever words of the sadistic narrator. Since the narrator makes each death seem like the victim’s fault, we find it ok to laugh at them – after all, they deserved it. Their poor decisions justify the punishment, and we can justify our laughter.
Although 1000 Ways to Die does not present death in the most graceful or respectful manner, I support it’s presence on TV simply because it gives death a presence. Many Americans are fearful and unfamiliar with death. 1000 Ways to Die uses humor to lighten the sober theme, a clever trick to make viewers comfortable with the topic of death. For those uncomfortable with the disease-stricken and war-torn bodies on CNN, I suggest giving 1000 Way to Die a try.
This blog is a platform of communication for a college course at Emory entitled "The Anthropology of Death and Burial". The purpose is to use this blog to invite the world into our classroom by drawing on current events or phenomena that surround us and that are relevant to our exploration into the topic of death and how people deal with it.
The course is explicitly cross-disciplinary and besides anthropology we also explore the topic of death through the lens of biology, history, religious studies, medicine, law, philosophy, sociology, literature and art. Feel welcome to explore and participate!
Who we are
The contributors to this blog are all undergraduate students at Emory University in Atlanta GA (USA).
The course is taught by Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz who is an archaeologists with a special interest in mortuary archaeology and ritual studies. She is also a regular contributor.